In fact, with so many schools and conferences not currently playing, with so many individual players opting the season out, and with redshirt and eligibility rules suspended, the 2020 college football season is going to have a humongous asterisk next to it regardless of what happens. Nobody will consider this year's CFP champion or Heisman Trophy winner to be truly "legitimate." While I love college football, I can't help but wonder why programs are even bothering to play.
Looking Back: There was optimism that the Cougars, led by new head coach Dana Holgorsen and dynamic quarterback D'Eriq King, were going to have a successful, division-winning season. However, after enduring a brutal start to the season that included demoralizing losses to Washington State and Tulane, a host of players (including King) decided to redshirt. The Cougars ended the season with a 4-8 record - their worst campaign since 2004 - and King elected to transfer to Miami.
The Big Story for 2020: Playing through a pandemic. It's going to be a whole different football game in 2020, with players quarantined, stadium crowds limited, and schedules changing on a constant basis. I'm still blown away that the Cougars were able to replace next week's Memphis game with Baylor - a team the Cougars haven't played since the end of the Southwest Conference - on six days' notice!
Quarterback Clayton Tune found himself in a tough spot last year, having to take over duties for King five games into the season, and ended the fall with 1,533 yards, 11 TDs and 9 interceptions. With experience, he should be better this season. He also has experienced running backs - Mulbah Carr and Kyle Porter - to hand the ball off to, as well as his prime receiving target from last year, Marquez Stevenson, who is probably the team's best offensive playmaker.
Reasons for Pessimism: Just because a team has a bunch of players returning doesn't mean that the team is going to be better, especially if those players contributed to truly atrocious performances on the defense or offensive line last season. Last year's defense allowed 468 yards and 34 points per game, while Ryan Monceaux wonders about an O-line that allowed 95 tackles for loss and 35 sacks last season. While Clayton Tune needs to show improvement, he also needs better protection.
What the Humans Think: CBS Sports ranks the Cougars 35th (out of 76* FBS teams currently planning to play this fall), and their sportswriters expect the Coogs to finish anywhere between third and eighth in what is now (thanks to UConn's departure) an 11-team AAC. Athlon had the Coogs ranked 70th (out of the full 130 teams) to start the season (they've since re-ranked them to be #45 out of 76*), and sees them as the sixth-best team in the AAC. The conference itself seems to think the same way; its preseason poll placed the Coogs seventh. Pete Fiutak at college Football News foresees a six-win regular season for Houston.
What the Computers Think: As of today, ESPN's FPI gives the Cougars a 50% or greater chance of winning seven out of their currently-scheduled ten games. Massey, on the other hand, currently only gives the Coogs a 50% or greater chance of winning four games. Congrove had the Cougars pegged at #50 (out of 77* teams) to start the season and expected the team to finish the season with a 4-6 record. As of this morning Sagarin puts the Cougars at #66 (out of all 257 Division I football programs); their rating of 69.57 implies a 5-5 record when the ratings of opponents and the home field advantage are taken into account (and a 5-6 record if the Memphis game is rescheduled).
What I Think: On one hand, I would expect that Dana Holgorsen's Adventures in Redshirting from last fall would pay dividends in the form of a team that is deeper, more experienced and better-conditioned this fall. That would suggest improvement in 2020. On the other hand, we're still talking about a team that has a record of 5-12 over its last 17 games, has one of the worst defenses in the nation over the last two years (#119 in 2018 and #113 in 2019), and is led by a quarterback who had almost as many interceptions as touchdowns last year. "Improvement" might be a relative term.
This projection, of course, assumes that the Cougars play enough games to even make it to five wins before Coronavirus forces the plug to be pulled on the 2020 college football season. Right now, I will treat every game the Cougars actually play this fall as an unexpected and enjoyable gift, win or lose.
*Air Force is scheduled to play only two games this fall, so some sites include the Falcons in their rankings while others don't.